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Education in the Islamic world varies considerably by country. Most Muslim schooling focuses at least in part on the transmission of Islamic traditions and values and on the use of the Qur'an as a guide for public and personal behavior.


The Qur'an refers to education as the shaping of character in accordance with Islamic principles. The first Islamic communities mainly promoted the recitation of the Qur'an. During the late 900s, institutions of higher learning emerged to teach other subjects, such as Islamic law and the sciences. Western colonial powers invaded Muslim countries during the 1800s and the early 1900s, altering educational systems and influencing many leaders to implement Western-style changes. In the early twenty-first century, many Islamic countries sought a return to a more traditional religious school curriculum.

Reading, Writing, and the Qur'an.

Muslim educational systems had begun to emerge within a century after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. During the early years of Islam, children attended elementary schools called kuttab. Some also studied in groups in homes, mosques, libraries, and bookshops. The kuttab curriculum consisted mainly of reading, writing, and the recitation of verses from the Qur'an. Teachers emphasized memorization over analysis and interpretation. Arabic was the language of instruction, and because most students did not speak Arabic, this method of teaching did little to foster comprehension. Students learned the verses in that language by rote. To the disapproval of conservative religious leaders, girls sometimes attended kuttab, and a few became teachers or scholars themselves.

During the 700s and 800s, older children and adults had opportunities to engage in advanced studies, and some selected a master to guide them in their moral and intellectual development. As in many other cultures, in both elementary and in higher learning, teachers had the right to administer corporal punishment, such as beatings. Many Muslims considered such mea-sures essential for the formation of good character, and some adult students frequently received severe forms of discipline.

For students of all ages, mosques played a central role in the educational process. In many places, mosques operated informal schools, offering instruction on Islamic practices and theology. Nearly all of these schools focused on the Qur'an. Some taught the basics of Islam and required students to learn verses; others dealt with more advanced topics of study.

Knowledge Base.

Islam benefited from the learning of the past, especially the legacy of the ancient Greek civilization. The caliph al-Mamun (ruled 813 – 833 ) founded an academy to translate works of science, philosophy, and medicine from Greek to Arabic. Muslims also made significant contributions in a range of academic disciplines. Andalusia, the southernmost region of Spain, was for several centuries the cultural center of the Muslim empire in the West. It attracted the leading scientists and scholars of the day. They made notable contributions to the fields of chemistry, medicine and surgery, mathematics, and philosophy. Christians and Jews studied with Muslims at the university of Córdoba, founded in 968 . The Fatimid dynasty established al-Azhar, a mosque-university, in 978 , and it remains one of the world's oldest institutions of higher learning. Between the 1000s and 1200s, Islam played an important role in the development of Western civilization by preserving and transmitting the learning of the ancient Greeks and made its own contributions in education as well.


By the 1000s, many Muslim communities provided more formal schools intended for older students. Known as madrasahs, these schools functioned as residential colleges, replacing the mosque schools. They did not offer grades or degrees, nor did they have written examinations, grade levels, classrooms, graduation ceremonies, or desks. Students and teachers did not occupy fixed roles; those who studied in one class could teach in another, depending on the level of knowledge they had in a particular subject.

The Nizamiyah, founded in Baghdad, served as the first madrasah. Similar schools quickly spread across much of the Muslim world. Most emphasized shari'ah, or Islamic law, and applied it to the various subjects. Topics of study included theology, Arabic grammar, hadith, and interpretation of the Qur'an. Many madrasahs also included secular subjects, such as astronomy, medicine, geography, and literature. Teachers fostered dialogues between themselves and their students rather than enforcing rote learning. Women could not attend madrasahs, but a few studied the same subjects with private tutors.

Western Influence.

After Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798 , and Western powers colonized other parts of the Muslim world, Islamic leaders began to adopt Western educational models in an attempt to modernize their countries. They opened secular universities, recruiting instructors from Europe. They also established schools for naval and army engineering, Western medicine, civil administration, veterinary science, and other fields. Printing presses published translations of Western textbooks. At the same time, Muslim students began traveling to Europe to study at Western universities.

The Western presence in the Islamic world brought about changes in elementary education as well as in higher learning. Turkey, Egypt, and several other countries broadened the courses of study offered in at least some of their schools. Teachers de-emphasized memorization of the Qur'an and gave secular subjects a more important place in the curriculum.

Although European powers established schools for the children of the colonizers, they did not wish to grant Muslims access to the same level of education. Instead, they opened schools that would train the local population to become clerks and technicians who would help carry out the needs of the colonial regimes. While European powers allowed madrasahs to operate, they gave these and other religious schools less funding and prestige than Western-supported programs. Students who attended religious schools had a disadvantage in the job market, as well. For these reasons, traditional religious education withered in many Muslim cities.

Because European nations interfered very little with some Islamic nations, such as Saudi Arabia, the Western influence affected some regions more than others. Moreover, while schools in the larger cities made changes, those in more remote and rural locations retained their traditional educational systems.

Recent Trends

Many Islamic nations combine traditional religious principles with Western subjects and teaching methods. In many major cities, schools at all levels have the resources to attract good teachers and supply students with updated textbooks, laboratory equipment, and computers. Renowned Muslim universities include al-Azhar in Cairo, the University of Tehran in Iran, the Islamic University in Medina, Saudi Arabia, and the University of Indonesia in Jakarta.

Lacking Resources.

Despite the success of some universities, many Islamic countries lack the resources to support their educational systems. In 1991 only about one-fourth of children in Bangladesh attended school, for example, and in the late 1980s, literacy rates in Oman and Senegal stood at 20 percent and 10 percent, respectively. Many primary school teachers are unqualified, having only a secondary school education and lacking knowledge of effective teaching techniques.

In many schools, teachers discourage students from asking questions or offering their ideas in discussions or in writing. To indicate mastery of the material, students often simply repeat lessons back to the teacher, which hinders the development of critical thinking skills needed for advanced study. Lack of modern learning materials and textbooks also hampers schools in some countries. Turkey, however, has made great strides in promoting education. An “Open University” broadcasts classes on television, and teachers receive instruction in subject matter and educational methods. Other countries have taken measures to acquire computers for their classrooms.

The education of women and girls still lags behind that of men and boys. Many schools are segregated by sex, and, in some areas, girls cannot continue their education beyond the elementary grades. Moreover, women who have the opportunity to continue in higher education may have to overcome the objections of friends or family, as well as consider the possibility that men may not want to marry them. Nevertheless, women and girls in many Muslim countries are rapidly gaining access to education.


Since the mid-1900s, many Islamic leaders have called for a departure from secularism and a move toward a traditionally religious approach to schooling. This movement, often called Islamization, has taken shape from the ideas of conservative Muslims who see current Islamic societies and governments as heretical and morally questionable. They believe that the reintroduction of religious schools will help reform society and lead to a greater emphasis on Islam in public life.

The movement toward Islamic schooling has succeeded in some countries. Beginning in 1980 , for example, Iran abolished almost all traces of secularism in universities. The new regime fired professors who held secular or Western ideas, segregated the sexes, and required female students to wear traditional Islamic clothing. Similarly, courses of study changed as educators began teaching all subjects from an Islamic perspective. The reforms allowed for a greater emphasis on Islamic studies in general and on the Qur'an in particular. Moreover, the segregated system has provided more opportunities for women to receive higher education. In 2002 women comprised about one-half of the university students in Iran.

Other countries have not taken much initiative toward reform. This is especially true in countries that have diverse religious populations, such as Indonesia. Many Muslim-dominant nations, however, retain a secular system of education. In some of these countries, the Islamization movement has only led to minor changes in the schools.

In recent years, however, the call for Muslim academic reform has grown louder. Many Muslim states, for instance, have opened new universities that follow traditional principles. Their names, which usually contain the word Islamic, suggest their educational slant and purpose. Some Muslims applaud these changes. Others worry that this way of schooling will undo some of the progress they believe Muslim education has made during recent years. See also Azhar, al-; Madrasah; Universities.

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